Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, the last book published by the justifiably renowned cultural historian Christopher Lasch just before his death in 1994, enjoyed enthusiastic approval across the political spectrum. Not only did conservative publications generally praise Lasch’s thin volume, the New York Times commissioned English political theorist John Gray to produce what became a stirring tribute to Lasch’s insight in uncovering the origins of the greatest danger to our society. We were being morally and politically abused by wayward, perverse elites who had turned their backs on the good simple folk who represented the true America.
Although Lasch did not live to see the gathering of the pampered hypocrites at Davos arriving in private jets to impose austerity measures on the hoi polloi, he would not have been surprised by the spectacle. The wealthy and influential who controlled Western societies were destroying everything the working class valued and had ominously “revolted” against human decencies and what we are accustomed to call “family values.”
Lasch (whom I knew) continued to think of himself until his dying day as a man of a certain Left, given his repugnance for corporate capitalists and their cultural influence. But were he alive now, it is hard not to imagine that he would be standing with the populist Right. Like James Traficant, the Ohio congressman from Youngstown who died 20 years ago, Lasch combined patriotism and cultural traditionalism with an affection for the blue-collar class. Both Traficant and Lasch lavished praise on “the people,” by which they obviously meant a certain segment of the American population.
I raise this last point because it brings to mind an acerbic exchange that I heard 30 years ago, between Lasch and the philosopher Claes Ryn. After Lasch mentioned the “people” several times at a conference at which I was present, Ryn asked whether Lasch thought this multitude could govern itself without proper guidance. Lasch responded, obviously annoyed that someone would question the ruling capacity of those who exhibited time-tested virtues and communal loyalties. At that time, I thought of another question for Lasch that I never got to ask, but which has come to mind every time I hear someone mention “the people.”
Clearly Lasch and our present generation of populists don’t mean the entire electorate when they invoke “the people.” Did the electoral majority (assuming one did exist) that voted for the brain-damaged, cultural radical John Fetterman for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania belong to the “people”? What about the majority of voters who made Alvin Bragg the district attorney in New York City or bestowed that office on Larry Krasner in Philadelphia? Were these voters members of “the people”? I’ve been hearing about how “the people” turned out for Lee Zeldin when he ran for governor of New York. But the last time I checked, most of the votes in that state went to Zeldin’s admittedly less intelligent and far less able opponent Kathy Hochul. Did Hochul’s supporters belong to “the people,” or did only Lee’s voters qualify as such?
Allow me to give my own answer to these heuristic queries: Politicians typically make noise about doing the will of “the people,” by which they’re letting us know that what they’re doing is popular with their constituents—or should be. These references have no deeper meaning, nor should they be interpreted as such.
When the MAGA crowd refer to “the people,” however, they mean something more specific. They are not alluding to every eligible (and for the Democrats, ineligible) American voter. Populists are designating a particular demographic that exists both in fact and as an ideal. For Lasch and Traficant, the people were blue-collar, church-going workers living preferably in extended families. For the MAGA crowd, they are pretty much the same as they were for Lasch, with certain modernizing additions, like women and some racial minorities in the workforce. The point is that for populists not every eligible voter belongs to “the people.” Certainly, the culturally radicalized unmarried women who played a significant role in last November’s election do not.
If I were to ask a MAGA populist whether those college students who voted for the woke Left, hoping Biden would get their college debts canceled, represented “the people,” I most likely would be met with a blank stare. Those who refer to the “people” have a very definite group in mind, something similar to what the populist political theorist Willmoore Kendall meant when he spoke about a “virtuous citizenry.” It seems to me that those on the Left who view populists as being socially and culturally on the Right even when they speak for workers are basically correct. The populist concept of “the people” points rightward because the working class that the populists seek to protect are upholding traditional values and institutions.
By now a cultural war is overshadowing and swallowing up older class conflicts. And in this struggle the populist defense of “the people” places them inevitably on the Right.